Traverse City National Writers Series: Interview with Michael Sandel

Traverse City Events: Renowned Harvard lecturer and best-selling author Michael Sandel will make a guest appearance at the City Opera House in Traverse City on Wednesday, May 2, for Traverse City's National Writers Series. gives Northern Michigan a taste of what's to come with this interview with Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel is a Harvard professor, internationally renowned lecturer and best-selling author. His "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?" class is one of the most popular and highest attended courses in Harvard history, and was recently turned into a hit PBS television series. A contributor to The Atlantic and The New York Times, and a frequent guest on such programs as NPR, The Colbert Report and the BBC, Sandel confronts today's looming political and ethical questions with a depth and clarity that led Newsweek to declare him "the world's most relevant living philosopher."

On Wednesday, May 2, Sandel will bring his provocative Socratic lecture style to the City Opera House stage in Traverse City for a guest appearance at the National Writers Series. His latest book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, asks one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time: Is there something wrong with a society in which everything is for sale? In a recent phone interview, spoke with the touring professor about his new book, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the intense public debate over economic equality, and his quest to spark a national discussion on the lightning-rod issues of money, markets and morality.

MyNorth: Your new book is subtitled "The Moral Limit of Markets." What are some of the areas you suggest morality should limit or have an impact on the market?

Michael Sandel: Morality should have an impact on the market in all areas. Even when we’re speaking about the distribution of income and wealth, questions of justice have to be brought to bear. It’s a mistake to assume that whatever distribution of income results from the operations of markets is fair. Fairness and distributive justice are philosophical questions, not just economic ones. The book focuses on the moral dilemmas that arise when markets and market values reach beyond material goods, like flat-screen TVs, into areas of life traditionally governed by non-market values and norms – areas like education, health care, relationships, etc.

One example I give in the book is that there is a charity now in the U.S. that pays drug-addicted women $300 to get sterilized, to avoid them having drug-addicted children. That is a market transaction, but one with serious moral implications attached. Another example is that a number of school districts are now trying to motivate children by paying them to get good grades, or to get high test scores, or to read. The question we have to consider in that scenario is whether a cash incentive crowds out the kind of attitude toward learning that should be the ultimate goal of education.

What about hiring private mercenaries to fight our wars? We haven't had much public debate about that, yet that's exactly what we've done in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should people be able to buy their way to the head of line? We allow it at airports now – what about at a doctor's office? Some doctors now offer concierge services for a premium price, where they offer patients same-day appointments or even access to their cell phone number. These are nice services for people who can afford it, but what if you can't? We need to be having a serious public debate about these non-market areas where the market is intruding.

MyNorth: In an article you wrote last month in The Atlantic, you suggested that having a price tag on some things cheapens their intrinsic value. This isn’t a problem with something like a TV, for example, but it's a problem when you put a price on, say, a human being. What are some of the things you believe we're wrongfully cheapening by placing a price tag on them? And what is the criteria you use to determine what should or should not be for sale?

Michael Sandel: This is one of the things I hope to discuss with the audience in Traverse City. I'm not just going to lecture, but put questions to the audience so we can engage in an interactive discussion. We need to have a more morally robust discussion in this country about where markets belong and where they don’t. To answer your question about criteria, there are two considerations we can look at when deciding what should or shouldn't be for sale. One has to do with fairness. It's sometimes said that as long as two parties agree to a market exchange, it's fair. Both parties made a choice to engage in the transaction, and both gave and received something of value. But sometimes we need to dig deeper to determine if a trade is truly fair.

Take prostitution or organ sales, for example. What if an impoverished Indian peasant sold his or her kidney to an affluent Westerner, because they are desperate for money? Do we consider that to be a fair transaction? Prostitution is also often motivated by a desperation for money. If poverty is the motivating force behind one's decision to engage in a transaction, how truly fair and free is that exchange? We need to look at just how voluntary some of these market exchanges are, particularly if they're made against the background of poverty.

There's a second consideration that goes beyond fairness, and that's the risk that money can degrade or corrupt certain goods. As mentioned earlier, some people oppose prostitution on the grounds that it's not a truly free choice, that the individuals participating in that exchange are being pressured by poverty. But another valid objection could be made on the grounds that even if the transaction was truly voluntary, it's intrinsically degrading. You could make the argument that our bodies or our sexuality have a value that transcends a market price.

Here's another example to think about. If we were so inclined, we could allow a free market in this country in which citizens could sell their votes. We know there are people who would sell their votes, and we know there are people who would buy them. Why don't we allow that? Because we believe that a vote is a not a piece of private property. It's a social responsibility, one that comes with being a citizen of this country. To put a price tag on it would be to cheapen that citizenship, and to cheapen our democracy. So, to summarize, when looking at whether or not something should be for sale, we need to consider two questions: Is it fair? And will marketizing the good corrupt or degrade the important non-market values associated with that good?

MyNorth: What are your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is economic equality an attainable or even reasonable goal?

Michael Sandel: I think the Occupy movement has raised some very important questions. We haven’t had much serious debate about inequality in a long time in this country. I think the movement has helped put the question of inequality on the political agenda, which is good. It may not be realistic to aspire to perfect equality, but democracy does not require perfect equality. What it requires is that we share a common life, that there not be such a vast gap between the rich and the poor that we begin to live separate kinds of lives. If we are a society in which everything is for sale, then affluence – or the lack of it – begins to matter a lot more. We’re able to buy different opportunities, different experiences, and thus begin to live increasingly separate lives, with fewer occasions where people from different backgrounds or walks of life encounter each other on a daily basis. That is one of the more corrosive influences of economic inequality on civic life. I call it the skyboxification of American life, and it’s an issue I address in the book and that I hope to talk about in Traverse City.

MyNorth: Is economic justice more about opportunity or ownership? For example, if you were to level the playing field and start everyone off with one million dollars tomorrow, by the next day some people would have lost everything while others doubled or tripled their wealth, because of the skills and opportunities they were either taught or born with relating to the management of money. So can we really make things economically just simply by equalizing wealth?

Michael Sandel: That’s a good point you raise. Economic equality and inequality are not just about material possessions. They are also about skills, talents, luck, fortune, family background, education, where we grew up, what country we are in, what society we belong to. All of these contingencies which are not of our own doing have a large bearing on whether or not we enjoy success. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to enjoy success, it’s a mistake to think that it’s entirely of our own doing. It’s a mistake to think that we’re not indebted to others or our community or our society for the opportunities and advantages we’ve been afforded, which are the reasons we’ve been able to flourish. Part of creating a good society is reminding those who land on top that success is not a measure of one’s virtue, but a measure of one’s good fortune. And that suggests a responsibility – a responsibility  to give back to others, and to society, for having been the recipient of that fortune.

MyNorth: There's a play on the old Churchill joke that says “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.” What kind of economic system do you think will be best poised to serve people well in the 21st century?

Michael Sandel: I think it’s a mistake to assume capitalism only takes one form, and that markets should govern the whole of life. If you look around the world at different successful societies, there are many versions of capitalism out there. One of the mistakes we’ve made in this country – especially after the Cold War, when capitalism was the only system left standing – was assuming that there was only one kind of capitalism, and that it required that markets govern the whole of life and that they were the primary instrument of achieving public good. Capitalism does not require this assumption. There is an important distinction between having a market economy and becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool. It is a means of organizing productive activity. A market society, on the other hand, is one in which everything is for sale, and market relationships invade every sphere of life and come to define everything from our personal relationships to our approach to the environment to our national security to our criminal justice.  What I think we need is a public debate about where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong. We need to ask the question: Do we want to live in a society in which everything is for sale? Or do we want to realize the benefits of a capitalistic system, while honoring and preserving the important non-market values that comprise a just and good society? That is the question we need to be asking ourselves as we go forward.

"An Evening with Michael Sandel" will take place on Wednesday, May 2 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door ($5 for students and $10 for educators) and are available at the City Opera House box office or online at The evening will include a pre-event live performance by Miriam Pico, dessert courtesy of Morsels, a cash bar, an audience Q&A and a book signing with the author. For more information on this and other upcoming National Writers Series events, visit has you covered. Find everything Northern Michigan, including Traverse City National Writers Series news, events and interviews, by clicking here.